Singers spark high flames in FGO’s impassioned “Norma”

By Lawrence Budmen

Mlada Khudoley (above) in the title role and Dana Beth Miller as Adalgisa in Bellini's "Norma" at Florida GRand OPera. Photo: Brittany Mazzurco-Muscato

Mlada Khudoley (above) in the title role and Dana Beth Miller as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma” at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Brittany Mazzurco-Muscato

Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is one of the operatic masterpieces of the bel canto era. More ambitious in scale than most other Bellini works, the tale of the title Druid priestess’s love affair with the proconsul of the occupying Romans melds a profusion of memorable arias, duets and ensembles with moments of high musical drama. In many ways Norma looks forward to the integrated musical theatricality of Verdi’s stage works.

Norma poses huge challenges, requiring singers with great flexibility and an extended vocal range. Florida Grand Opera’s production of this operatic landmark, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center avoids the usual pitfalls and delivered a frequently brilliant realization of Bellini’s masterpiece.

The title role of the Druid priestess who has born two children by Pollione, the proconsul of the occupying Romans, is one of the most vocally taxing in the Italian repertoire. In very different ways Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé and, currently, Sondra Radvanovsky, have embodied the role with superb vocalism and their own dramatic personalities.

Russian soprano  Mlada Khudoley, the protagonist of the FGO production, does not quite approach that standard but she met the role’s intricacies head on, singing with vocal luster and building her characterization  to a heartbreaking climax.

Almost immediately after her initial appearance, the soprano must sing “Casta diva,” one of the most difficult soprano arias in the repertory. Khudoley floated Bellini’s long phrases smoothly and beautifully, the appealing ping of her high notes delivered with pinpoint accuracy. In the succeeding cabaletta, her coloratura was strong but woven to expressive ends.

She was especially effective in duets with mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as Adalgisa, Norma’s rival for Pollione’s love, with beautiful blending of timbres and faultless coloratura unleashing the emotional sparks. There was steel in Khudoley’s top range as Norma’s rage reached a boiling point at Pollione’s betrayal. Khudoley was deeply moving in the opera’s final pages as she gave plangent voice to Norma’s plea to her father Oroveso to protect her children before she sacrificed herself on the flames of the funeral pyre.

Miller proved a real scene stealer herself, bringing depth of emotion and striking theatricality to Adalgisa’s every appearance. Her rich, smoky sound, ease in the voice’s highest and lowest extremes  and firm control were matched by glamour and dramatic intensity. The conclusion of Act I was a high point, Miller’s vocalism fiery and full throated in trio with Khudoley and the Pollione of Giancarlo Monsalve.

Pollione is a one-dimensional character but Monsalve brought a robust, virile tenor to the leader of the Druids’ enemies. His large voice turned lyrical and tender in duet with Khudoley as Pollione joined Norma in flaming death.  Craig Colclough had the low bass notes and noble bearing for the Druid high priest Oroveso, his call to arms rumbling with menace.

As Clotilde, Sarah Payne’s lustrous soprano commanded attention and Edgar Miguel Abréu made the most of Flavio’s brief appearances with a fine lyric tenor. Katherine Kozak’s chorus was consistently strong and rousing in the war cry “Guerra! Guerra!”

Anthony Barrese conducted with passion and idiomatic fluency, never allowing the dramatic tension to flag while drawing first-rate orchestral execution.

Nico Muni’s staging captures the opera’s grandeur and the dramatic confrontations of the leading characters in striking tableaux. John Conklin’s massive sets and attractively formal costumes (from Cincinnati Opera) were evocatively lit by Thomas Hase.

Florida Grand Opera has effectively cast and  produced one of the most difficult and monumental works in the operatic literature. Lovers of bel canto and grand opera should not miss the opportunity to see this fine production.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Norma 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. February 11 and 13 at the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale. Mary Elizabeth Williams and Frank Porretta sing the roles of Norma and Pollione on Sunday and January 26 and 29. Catherine Martin plays Adalgisa January 29, 30 and February 11 and 13.; 800-741-1010.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Singers spark high flames in FGO’s impassioned “Norma””

  1. Posted Jan 24, 2016 at 5:06 pm by Jung

    No mention of the added scene… or the one never done elsewhere that gives Oroveso a second aria. To tell the truth, it sounded early Verdi and I suspect it was added for a certain bass ’round ’bout the 1840’s or so.

  2. Posted Jan 26, 2016 at 11:13 am by Antonio del Moral

    The lead singer for Norma, never heard from this lady, is she good? Where she comes from….

  3. Posted Jan 26, 2016 at 1:04 pm by Michael Sturgulewski

    I’ll be seeing it this Saturday. I’m hoping the beautifully orchestrated and ethereal choral passage after the Guerra chorus in the second act isn’t cut.

  4. Posted Jan 27, 2016 at 10:16 am by cristina Dueñas

    I saw Norma last night..ONE OF THE BEST OPERAS I HAVE SEEN.The scenery is so real and the illusion of the different scenes is perfect. Mary Beth Williams mesmerized us all with her vocal range and passionate interpretation. Dana Beth Miller was superb also.
    I am calling all my friends to run and see it.
    Great Job!
    Cristina D.

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